Some months ago, while reporting a story on Pakistani fashion in the context of Zee TV’s initiative to telecast Pakistani serials on its Zindagi channel (http://mintne.ws/1wFgJGo), I was surprised at the keenness which designers and commentators from both sides of the border showed in the subject.

A fond anecdote about Partition retold by the founder of an Indian bridal event and a Pakistani lifestyle journalist stayed with me. Those who cut the shalwar well went to Pakistan and those who could stitch the choli (blouse) well went to India.

Everyone upheld the high points of the other country’s fashion—admitting to mutual curiosity, interest and shopping wish lists.

A real vision of this mutual curiosity walked all over Delhi’s Pragati Maidan last week at “Alishan Pakistan", a lifestyle exhibition jointly organized by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, or Ficci, and the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan.

The four-day exhibition that ended on 14 September was thronged by customers, mostly women, shopping like they’d never seen a shalwar kameez in their lives.

Almost each of the 250-odd stalls selling clothes, Pakistan’s famous Lawn fabric, couture, jewellery, glassware or pottery had hordes of visitors.

In some, you had to wiggle for room to browse. It wasn’t just idle window shopping. A majority could be seen carrying multiple shopping bags, indicating substantial sales despite the fact that the prices weren’t low by Indian standards. While there were murmurs that long-term trade deals couldn’t be finalized, there was little to doubt that the event was a success.

There is no dearth of salwar-kurta-dupatta sets in India’s retail market, which is currently booming. India is also the home of heritage crafts, hand-embroidery and artisanal embellishments. While a steady segment of apparel customers in India does swear by Lawn fabric and indeed nobody cuts a shalwar like a Pakistani designer does, there was nothing at this exhibition in terms of tangible objects, fashion, stylish costumes or innovation that the Indian fashion and garment industry does not produce.

In fact, the colours and style aesthetic visible at the event would only engross a certain section of North Indians; it certainly didn’t promise a pan-India appeal. Pakistani embroidery is good, but would it really win over finer Indian embroideries? It’s hard to say. So what pulled in so many people?

I think the answer has little to do with what was being sold. It was more about a certain “charm", a word used by Omar Jamil, a Pakistani public relations executive who was representing a clutch of designers.

“It is the charm of buying something from Pakistan," he said simply, pinning it down.

The charm of sealing—with shopping explorations—a peculiarly incestuous relationship, I would add.

I hung around in the busier stalls, queuing up (without buying a stitch) to understand customer sentiment and overheard numerous tidbits from conversations that made me pleasantly aware of the warmth and familiarity Indians and Pakistanis share for each other.

Mundane but engrossing conversations about Lahore and Karachi, about old family houses left behind, of cousins and aunts in each other’s countries, of wedding customs abounded.

Or expressions like: “Can I buy what you are wearing?"

Trade events in Delhi bring every kind of cuisine, craft and fashion from the sub-continent including Thai silks, Vietnamese hand-embroidered goods, Japanese Shibori or Bangladeshi Dhakai, but the response among shoppers is nowhere close to the sentiment that gets rustled up for Pakistan.

This may be too microscopic and too momentary to cite as an instance of what a majority of Indians and Pakistanis feel about each other or how they would like to see the political relationship between their countries. But, if the chips reveal the veracity of the block, there seems to be a huge disparity in what clouds our minds as perception formed through what we read and hear; how it slants our socio-political bias and the truth on the ground. No Pakistani clothes exhibition can erase the stains left by terrorist attacks, nor can our love for their shalwars be reasons to sidestep the serious stumbles between our political leaderships.

But I must certainly confess that interacting from a non-journalistic perspective in a non-political space was eye-opening. It felt as if we the people had nothing to do what our governments are embroiled with. It made me feel distant from the saga of harsh realities that connects us with Pakistan. And close to the Pakistanis. It was as if I knew them from before.

Strange.

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